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Museums On Black Culture

This is a menu of the topics on this page (click on any): February 22, 2001, Thursday    
Arts in America; A Struggle to Be Seen     By STEPHEN KINZER    .

February 22, 2001, Thursday

Arts in America; A Struggle to Be Seen


Although Tulane University has one of the country's finest collections of African-American art, most of it languishes unseen in a locked storeroom.

''All the major players are represented here, but our one exhibition room isn't big enough to show even a fraction of what we have,'' said Mora J. Beauchamp-Byrd, the curator of the collection at Tulane's Amistad Research Center. ''This work deserves to be seen and appreciated, and it's really very frustrating that we don't have the space to show it.''

Across town, the Black Arts National Diaspora Museum houses another rich collection. But during one recent week the museum was closed much of the time, with grates on the door and windows and apparently no one inside.

''That's because we're on the first floor in a bad neighborhood, and we have treasures,'' said Jeannette Hodge, the museum's director. The museum also lacks the staff and resources that would allow it to remain open as regularly as she would like.

In the historic Treme neighborhood, near the French Quarter, government urban renewal funds were used several years ago to buy four 19th-century wooden buildings that are now home to the New Orleans African-American Museum of Art, Culture and History. But the museum has little parking and no bus turnaround space and is not in a well-traveled area. Its budget is so small that there are only three professional staff members.

An hour's drive from New Orleans, near Gonzales, La., an old plantation town, a woman named Kathe Hambrick has opened a one-room museum dedicated to the history of African slavery in the United States. Ms. Hambrick has great plans, but at the moment she relies on student volunteers and an annual budget of just $100,000.

The challenges facing these institutions reflect those at African-American museums across the country. Even in New Orleans, which has an extraordinarily rich African-American tradition and where the majority of the population is black, such museums are struggling.

Nonetheless, there are far more museums concentrating on African-American culture and history than there were a few decades ago. As recently as 1970 only a handful existed across the country. Today there are hundreds. Some, like the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History in Detroit and the African-American Museum in Dallas, are run by highly qualified administrators and have big ambitions. Many others face a host of obstacles as they seek to evolve from modest semiprofessional institutions into serious and broadly appealing ones.

''It's not so easy,'' said Lowery Sims, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem. ''We're the only African-American museum that is accredited by the American Association of Museums. Other institutions that want to get to that level need to have a certain quality of collection, good storage facilities and staff to deal with the collection, bring in exhibitions on a regular basis and raise money.

''We also have the advantage of an institutional structure and a strong board of directors. You need that to rise out of the situation where it's an individual who decides the fate of the museum.''

Many curators at African-American museums combine art and history, saying that much of the black experience can be told through the visual arts.

''When a group of people cannot preserve their history in books for one reason or another, they use oral history and art,'' said Antoinette Wright, director of the DuSable Museum of African-American History in Chicago. ''The African tradition of recorded history is completely bound up with the visual arts, and we haven't moved away from that.''

Ms. Wright said that the DuSable Museum, like many other African-American institutions, considered its mission to be social as well as educational.

''In the face of so much negativity, our people, especially young people, need to see positive images,'' she said. ''We get kids in here who have been told all their lives that they're going to wind up in prison. When they see our exhibit of African-American inventors, they leave with an 'I can' spirit. That helps them move away from distorted images that were created for us.''

''This whole museum movement really just started in the early 1990's, and it's a thrill to see that more and more cities are deciding that they want something like this.'' she continued. ''We're just beginning to record our history. I'm looking forward to the day when we'll have the resources and the public interest that's been devoted to Holocaust museums. Then we'll really be able to preserve and convey our experience as a people.''

The DuSable Museum has an annual budget of $2.7 million. That is among the highest of any African-American museum, but it pales before the budgets of major national museums. This year, for example, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's in Washington is $55.7 million, more than half of which comes from federal funds.

Although curators at African-American museums say that many of their appeals to wealthy blacks fall on deaf ears, some celebrities do contribute. Among those who have donated to various museums are Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover, Bill Cosby and Billy Dee Williams, himself a painter.

Curators also complain about a lack of corporate support, but there are striking exceptions. The General Motors Foundation recently gave $5 million for the establishment of an African-American art center in Detroit, and Proctor & Gamble has donated $6 million to a new museum in Cincinnati that is to document the history of the Underground Railroad.

Planning for the Cincinnati museum, which is not expected to open until 2004, has been under way for five years. Officials there said they were acutely aware of how many African-American museums had stumbled or failed because they were founded with more enthusiasm than savvy.

Rita Organ, the director of exhibits and collections at the embryonic Cincinnati museum, is also president of the Association of African-American Museums, which has more than 200 members. Several hundred museums devoted to aspects of the African-American experience, many of them in storefronts or single rooms, do not belong.

Ms. Organ said that in addition to coping with low funds and lack of professional expertise, such museums must deal carefully with political sensitivities.

''Telling African-American history can often offend donors if they feel that the history isn't the truth or places a particular person or group of people in a bad light,'' she said. ''If it is perceived that our museums are becoming corporately run, then the community can often respond negatively, and this shows in attendance figures. On the flip side, if a corporation sees that there is no community support, it may be reluctant to give.''

In February, which for 25 years has been designated Black History Month, many institutions across the country offer special programs and exhibitions documenting the African-American experience. This year's range from a photography exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago to re-creations of slave life at George Washington's estate in Mount Vernon, Va.

Throughout the year, museums that have large collections of African-American art but not enough space to display them often send their works on tour or lend them to other institutions. Last fall, for example, six historically black colleges and universities selected outstanding works from their collections, combined them into a single exhibition and arranged for it to be shown at Duke University.

Occasionally, private collectors of African-American art donate works to universities or other institutions that seem able to catalog and display them. Recently, for example, Paul R. Jones, who worked for a number of government civil rights programs, donated his collection of more than 1,000 works to the University of Delaware.

The collection at the Amistad Research Center includes works by many of the most celebrated African-American artists, including acknowledged masters like Henry O. Tanner, Edward Mitchell Bannister and Jacob Lawrence. Its most popular work, judging from the number of requests that the center receives for permission to reproduce it on notecards and posters, as well as in art history textbooks, is Ellis Wilson's colorful and stylized ''Funeral Procession.'' It is among the best-known images in African-American art, but most of the time it sits unseen in the Amistad's storeroom.

''We want to show our art, which we can hardly do now, and we also want to contextualize it, because in our community, art and history really do overlap,'' Ms. Beauchamp-Byrd said. ''Institutions like ours have to do this because mainstream museums are not presenting these artists' work. Our artists have not been on a level playing field with others who are not of color.''

Many specialists in African-American history are frustrated that there is no single museum or center in the United States that comprehensively documents the institution of slavery, the root of the black experience in this country. Some, however, like the Anacostia Museum and Center for African-American History and Culture in Washington, display artifacts of slave life.

''In our society we're used to looking at museums as places where we see the best of ourselves,'' said Steven Newsome, the Anacostia's director. ''The subject of slavery runs against that expectation. There have been a few efforts to confront this subject, but all of us need to do a better job of it. It's a question that will continue to arise, and at some point, it's going to have to be dealt with.''

Mr. Newsome, like some of his colleagues, believes that it may be best for a museum or museums of slavery to be located in the South. The River Road African-American Museum and Gallery, which Ms. Hambrick opened in 1994, is a modest effort to begin such an institution.

Ms. Hambrick was born in Louisiana but left as a teenager, vowing never to return to what she considered a hateful part of the country, filled with visible and invisible reminders of overwhelming brutality.

''When I finally did come back, something told me to take one of these plantation tours,'' she said. ''I wound up taking them all, and I was very disturbed and upset that there was no mention of slavery at all. One guide even talked about servants. That's when I decided that this story has to be told.''

With no experience or training in the field, Ms. Hambrick persuaded the owners of one plantation to give her a vacant cabin, which now houses her museum. Its exhibits range from a cotton sack to a sign that reads ''Colored Served in Rear.''

Ms. Hambrick is now seeking $2.5 million in grants to buy an original slave cabin, present art and history exhibitions and build a sculpture garden.

''This is our Auschwitz,'' Ms. Hambrick said. ''We need to learn about what happened, confront it and educate people about something a lot of them are only vaguely aware of. We've been so caught up in civil rights, fighting poverty and trying to reduce crime that we haven't had time to think about preserving our culture. If we can start doing that, we'll build our self-esteem in ways that will really be good for America.''

Organizations mentioned in this article:

Related Terms:
Blacks; Museums; Culture; History

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Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

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